EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Herman Wouk, the best-selling novelist, died on Friday, May 17, at the age of 103. Among his best-known novels are The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance (the latter two about World War II, inspired by his time in the Navy in the South Pacific). For me, however, Wouk will always be the author of the 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, about the coming of age of a Jewish-American girl in New York City. I published a piece about re-reading that novel in the Wall Street Journal four years ago. When I had first read the book, as a teenager almost 50 years earlier, it had been viewed by those in the know as a “woman’s book” and a rather vulgar page-turner. I now discovered that it was a serious work of literature, both well-written and psychologically insightful about a middle-class young woman struggling with the often competing claims of ambition, romance, family, and religious expectation. When my essay appeared, I was surprised by the avalanche of emails I received from readers who wanted to weigh in on what the novel had meant to them when they first read it. Below is a sampling from some of those emails:

I have been a lifetime voracious reader and an avid book club member.  However, I still return to Marjorie as my literary rock and foundation. Almost beyond number I have reread the section where Marjorie reveals to her lawyer husband to be that she lost her virginity to Noel Airman.  His reaction so touched my heart because she was no longer perfect to him. I am 69 years of age, Jewish, and a graduate of Queens College, in New York City. I confess to being another “Shirley.”  I have been married for 46 years and have two sons.  All my men our [sic] lawyers. 
I thank you for validating my feelings about Marjorie Morningstar and vindicating my rereading the book in the face of some of my acquaintances who could not understand why the novel means so much to me.

I am a product of the 1950s and Herman Wouk was confronting reality in my time not investigating history when his books came out. I do not know if Marjorie Morningstar survives as great literature but it is great humanity, and serves in the same instructive coming of age tradition as was Studs Lonigan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Adventures of Augie March, Edith Wharton, and their peers.

Indeed, I was one of those teenage girls for whom  Wouk’s novel was “de rigueur reading.”  If I remember correctly, even as my life and career evolved, I read it every five years, simply to stay in touch with the hopes, dreams, and realities of becoming an adult, as you so aptly noted.  Now, I work assiduously to encourage the younger people around me, those with whom I work, those I mentor, my own children, to hold onto a particular moment in time so that sometime in the future that moment will be remembered both for how it felt and what it meant then, and how it feels and reflectively, what it means now.  I so enjoy the feedback I get when I learn that one of them has had a potent experience of, “Oh, I see what you meant!”

The following is the original article written about Wouk’s Marjorie, a young character with whom many identified.

More… “Herman Wouk’s Legacy”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+